This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship. The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here.
Early modern women and men possessed complex capacities for friendship, love, and devotion, and the nuances of these partnerships defy and challenge our received assumptions about early modern heterosexual and heterosocial relationships. This piece describes a radical friendship which grew between three early modern people: a woman, her brother, and her best friend. As I have argued in a recent article in Gender & History, relationships such as these can be understood as ‘queer intimacies’: strange, partially-articulated, and novel, relationships which defied traditional frameworks and were also reflective of feelings in common, mutual sentiments, and ways in which senses of self and identity could be informed by shared sympathies. These were radical friendships in the early modern British world: intimate communities which were present but not common, valued but often misunderstood, meaningful to the people who formed them but kept secret or protected from others.
This queer intimacy was constructed between a woman named Constance Aston Fowler, her brother Herbert Aston, and her friend, and eventual sister-in-law, Katherine Thimelby Aston. The two families, the Astons and the Thimelbys, shared roughly the same social status. They were landed gentry: the Astons of Staffordshire, the Thimelbys of Lincolnshire. Family members were Knights of the Bath, prioresses, ambassadors. They were a literary family, part of a network in which writing and sharing poetry were acts of art and of alliance. Perhaps most significantly, they were connected by their recusancy: the Thimelbys openly harboured Catholic priests – paying repeated fines for doing so – and Sir Walter Aston (1584–1639) converted to Catholicism while acting as ambassador to Spain.
Constance, Herbert, and Katherine all met in the 1630s. Constance and her brother already shared a close, permanent, devoted relationship. In 1635, when Herbert accompanied his father Walter to Spain as part of his second ambassadorial mission, Constance was bereft. She told him that ‘you canot know nor emagen the perpetuall misery I live in…what a death I esteeme this longe and most unfortunate separasion from you’. And when she heard that her brother had fallen ill abroad, Constance wrote of the news as ‘a grefe…in to my soule…tongues and penes are not able to expresse it’.
Constance and Katherine were introduced to one another at a dinner they both attended while Herbert was in Spain. Constance was already married, to a man named Walter Fowler. But upon meeting Katherine, Constance wrote and imagined their relationship as a courtship, one which followed patterns and tropes established for heterosexual marriage matches. Katherine made a huge first impression upon Constance, who vowed that ‘a thousand times have I blest, and allmost adored the time, that first I saw her’. She stated that they had begun with ‘onely complementle frendship’, but began to exchange heated glances and inside jokes, sharing ‘silent expressions, for none but ourselves knew…of that which have past betwixt us….she would sometimes give a looke to me as if bechence her eye had so wander’d, and then she would steale the prittiest wordes to me’. The two women then moved to exchanging clandestine letters, whereby Katherine would “sen[d] me a letter by a messinger knowne onely to her selfe and me…every body here thought hee brought letters still to my maide from her friendes…when I wright, my maide putts them up in a cover and derects them in her hand to Mrs. Thimelby’s maide…to give them carfully to her mistress’. Constance was head over heels: ‘I confesse I have bin most deadly in love with her as ever lover was’. And what’s more, Katherine returned her feelings: ‘[She] tould me she has made me misteres of her hart’.
Despite the fact that Herbert was far away, Constance worked hard to place him at the centre of the relationship she shared with Katherine. She wanted him to experience their special courtship himself by reading their letters to one another. Once he returned, she promised, she would give him the correspondence, and ‘You will say, I am certaine, when you peruse [it], that ther was never any more passionat afectionat lovers then she and I, and that you never knew two cretures more truly and deadly in love with one another than we are’. This relationship retained senses of secrecy and illicitness, and information about the bond was to be shared exclusively with Herbert: ‘my dearest brother, I must beg of you not to discourse to any other what you know passes betwine Mrs. Thimelby and me; for no creature, but your selfe who knowes all my hart, dare I reveale any of this to, least exceptience be taken’.
From the beginning of their relationship, Constance worried about what would happen when Katherine married. In a letter from Feb 11, 1636, Constance wrote to Herbert that she would ‘be aflicted to the soule [if she marries]…for I vow to you, with my eyes drownd in teares, I am most certayne, ther is none in England worth of her’. It is very possible that, in response to this fear that her relationship with Katherine would be disrupted by marriage to a man she did not know, Constance engineered a match between her brother and her beloved friend. Sometime in the spring or summer of 1638, when her brother was about to return from Spain, Constance urged him to ‘doe what you can to compasse that happynes for your selfe which I soe thirst after, that my dearest friend and you being unighted in one’. She was utterly committed to the match, writing that ‘[If this marriage fails] then all the world could not have invented a more killing newes then this will be to me…For I speake it to you with my eyes drownd in tears; I thinke, nay, I am certayne the grefe of it would kill me’.
Constance and Katherine’s own descriptions of the bonds that all three people shared make it clear that the marriage between Herbert and Katherine was not a coverup or a sham; rather, the three wrote of their bond as tripartite. Even before she met Katherine, Constance dreamed of her brother’s future wife as someone she would love: ‘who soever she may bee…she will bee treable harted. For first, her owne hart must needes bee unighted to yours…and then mine, which has been the keeper of yours.’ This imagery, of a ‘treble hearted’ person or a tripartite union, persisted when Katherine and Herbert promised to marry one another. Constance wrote that in their marriage, ‘your harts may likewise be come one, and soe I may keepe them with more ease in my brest than now I can, they being devided’.
Katherine and Herbert married in October of 1638. In her own letters to Herbert, Katherine made frequent reference to the love shared between the three parties. She wrote that ‘I should love you les, if you les loved your sisters’, and echoed Constance’s descriptions of their mutual affections as secret and delightful. A postscript to one of Katherine’s letters read ‘Let none se this but your deare sister’, and encouraged conversation and communion between the siblings, instructing him to ‘say as much as you can to your dearest sister for me. Never creature was so obliged as I to her. Oh love her extreamly, and let her know’. Katherine wrote of the time that Herbert and Constance spent together as significant and separate, insisting ‘I doe not wish you here when you are with her’. As for her own feelings for Herbert, Katherine was forthright about her love and eagerness to spend her own time with him: when sleeping, she was ‘happier, for alwaise then I am talking with you; but waking, my heart akes because I am not so…Come as sune as you can’. In an undated letter from many years after their marriage, Katherine was still making reference to the multiplicity of their affections: ‘take my love to make the perfect number 3’.
Katherine died at the age of 40 in July of 1658, having given birth to ten children. Constance died in March of 1664, having given birth to twelve. Herbert died last of all, in January of 1689. The bond between Constance, Herbert, and Katherine was a queer intimacy. This was a radical friendship, unlike any other ties. It was built upon lived experiences, but also upon the correspondence and poetry that Constance, Herbert, and Katherine wrote for and with and about one another. The imagery that they deployed in these writings – of trebled hearts, a tripartite love – surely referenced their shared Catholicism, but also the multiplicity of this relationship, and the ways that their affections informed and nurtured the complex ties that bound all three individuals together.
Victoria E. Burke, “Aston, Herbert (bap. 1614, d. 1688/9), poet,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sep. 2004, Accessed 10 June 2020, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-68247.
Arthur Clifford, Tixall Letters; Or the Correspondence of the Aston Family, and their Friends, (London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1816).
Amanda E. Herbert “Queer Intimacy: Speaking with the Dead in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Gender and History Vol. 31 No. 1 (March 2019), 25-40.
Amanda E. Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) 21-51.
Donna J. Long, “Thimelby [née Aston], Gertrude (1617–1668), poet,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sep. 2004, accessed 10 Jun. 2020, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-71156;
Victoria Van Hyning, “Thimelby, Mary [name in religion Winefrid] (1618/19–1690), prioress of St Monica’s, Louvain, and author,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 29 May 2014, accessed 10 Jun. 2020, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-105825.